Digital Folklore With Olia Lialina & Dragan Espenschied: The Transcript

by Paddy Johnson on May 13, 2011 · 6 comments Events

The unicorn featured on Olia Lialina & Dragan Espenschied's book Digital Folklore

What is digital folklore? Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied lecture at the New Museum last April promised to answer this question, though like Will, I’m not sure I got what I was looking for. While there was plenty of discussion about images and page layouts used by early web participants, thoughts about their significance were often either poorly expressed or not tabled at all. Certainly, I would have felt better if the conversation didn’t so frequently return to the creative limitations of a Facebook update or a YouTube channel. The truth of the matter is optimal creative conditions vary from person to person, and just as much effort is needed on the part of the user to correctly identify those conditions for themselves as is needed by developers, critics and scholars.

Although I have transcribed the lecture in its entirety along with providing a few light annotations, for the sake of reader ease, I'm not going to include it all below (the post is monstrously long as is). It's sufficient to summarize the history of user culture for example, which Lialina and Espenscied locate with Vannevar Bush's memex concept (or the internet as imagined in the 1930), and end with Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of HTML and as “The Internet”. (No one can invent the work of millions, but he made this claim regardless at TED's 2009 conference.)

An important pit stop is made in this lineage to discuss the tension between hackers (read: programmers) and users (read: people who don't know anything) though, Lialina claimed they were one in the same in 1997. (This is true only to the extent that the level of html knowledge I need to blog today would have also been required by the average 1997 user.) The difference between hackers and users later evolves into a difference between professional and amateur users, the high period of amateur users identified as 1995-1997 by Lialina and Espenschied.

Finally, also omitted from the transcript are a few discussions on amateur webpages that needed images I couldn’t find, along with the small amount of discussion about their art work. It’s worth a look, but was not the main focus of the talk. Those looking to check that out can find their work here and here. For the nerds who will settle for nothing less than the full transcript is available here. Otherwise, keep reading!

Olia Lialina: Thank you very much, and good evening…I'm going to talk not about the book [Digital Folklore] but about the research that we started like around 2001 and the research that is now going on.

About the book itself: we're not releasing books every year or two. It's our first book. We are more “web people,” we write for the web, we make net art projects, this [book] is a collection of our essays from 2004. The main texts in this book are written by our students, those who decided to follow our followed our interests and actually made a lot of contributions to the research.

Dragan Espenschied: Yeah, so, …At the end of the [Digital Folklore] introduction comes this: “Digital folklore encompasses the customs, the traditions, and elements of visual texture and audio projects that emerge from users engagement with personal computer applications during the last decade of the twentieth and the first decade of the twenty-first century.” This is what we call “digital folklore. So ask yourself, why this time frame and not the 70s or something? It is because we felt the need to distinguish digital folklore from home computer culture, which came before, and hacker's culture, and so on, came before, and it’s exactly this time when the web became a mass media that digital folklore actually started to appear.

OL: Our research also started with pages like this in 2001, when [amateur] users really disappear from the web, week by week, it was a moment when we started”¦to describe what made them special, what makes us talk about particular aesthetics of the early web of the web of the 90s. These are stomping grounds, you know, there are blinking graphics, what you can see now on the screen shots: there are borders there are frames, so there is a new sign, yeah? And elements like this were washed away from the web at the very end of the 90s and the beginning of this century. When we researched all of this culture and the vernacular web, we always tried to review this with the pages that still exist, not just what is online, and this page, the film program of Stuttgart is one of our treasures for a long time, until 2008, because it existed, and it was actual.

DE: It was a business website, that was working until 2008. And you made a screen shot in 2004 because we thought it would be switched off tomorrow [Laughter from audience].

OL: But it took four more years before it really disappeared. And now there is a case…

DE: There is a special case here, which illustrates how this process works. So this is the website of the school, where our son is actually going to. [Laughter from audience.] And we thought it's a great web page, it's just a school next to our house, and we thought, “Sure, he would go here, we checked out the web site, and we thought: Yes!” [Laughter from audience.] Because, you see, it's really made in this modular style. Here are fresh dates, what's happening, there are actually no current dates at the moment, and this page is actually made by the housekeeper of the school, so he figured out himself how to do this together everything, at that time, director of the school, and recently, the current director of the school called a meeting, and announced that they'd asked a design agency, to redo the website.

You know, we went in and told them that they shouldn’t do it, [Laughter from audience.] This web page shows that somebody is there and taking care of it, and making choices, not having a corporate design, because it's not a corporation. It's a nice place to send your kids to, where there's such a housekeeper.

OL: Because they represent their own personal culture.

DE: It's unprofessional, and people make fun of it and laugh about it, like you. [Laughter from audience.] But then, there's very much an idea that you have to do it professionally, and this [the old school website] is embarrassing, which it isn't. Some elements are very special in this regard, for example the download instructions asides. [Surely, an outdated website is more special in the context research than it is a professional tool. The truth of the matter is a website design that hasn't changed in over ten years also suggests a lack of care and investment.]

OL: Yeah. If you know you want to imitate the early web site, you can put the “under construction” sign until the job is done.

DE: The reference is key.

OL: And then web design as a profession was emergent. It's very interesting that in the middle of the 2000s, in the middle of this last decade, the [construction signs] came back in another form, as the “beta” sign, that had to be next to each logo of the new start up, of the new service, this idea that things have to be dynamic, not finished. They have to be there before they are done. This came back ten years after. [Editor's note: Notably, use of the term Beta is now quickly disappearing. Gmail, Facebook and Hulu no longer use the term, likely because no one wants an "essential" service to be in a testing phase. It was however, a very effective marketing technique when free email services were still being developed as far as getting people to sign up. The idea then, was that by using a beta product you would be privi to the latest and greatest technologies first. Gmail Labs are yesterday's Beta]

DE: Clearly, the foundation for this culture was laid with under construction signs. Here we have a very sad example, actually, this is a classic example, from a web page that we archived, so it shows something will happen here, at some undefined point in the future, and so it's also an invitation to check again. You can come back in one month, and maybe something happened. But this is already so old. It's probably nobody will.


An embedded midi file plays an uplifting song.

There are many such ironic projects about the amateur web, which assumes that it is a chaotic place and that people just put whatever they want on the page, but in fact, all of this, these elements have a very defined meaning. So here [see above] we have west combinations, and a star background, and there's an under construction sign in space, so what you can just fly around. For me it's not very animated, but it's not trying to make a scene or a setting. It's really trying to use parts and bodies, so part of it is about space games here, it's a fan website. The “space” really stands for the unused possibilities at this time in the Internet, because at this time, you really could do anything.

For most users, at this time, it was mind-boggling what you could do. You could make everything in color, with somebody on the other side of the planet watching. Also in color, there is some red, and you could have music in the background and everything. The “under construction” sign in space is about building the web, and also it's about the connections, this metaphor of the “information super highway,” where this happens, so there's at that end, a link, and people imagine they are traveling through the user space, and then there's a dead end, but you can turn back and go somewhere else in space and within a month, the races are complete. So it's actually very touching. [I've left this in only as an example of imagery that is discussed without offering any real reflection. This is likely because there's not much to say about these images of space. These photographs are like pictures of roses: we understand the metaphor on the second of impact.]



This is also an outstanding thing because the “under construction” sign is also integrated in the page's layout. It's a military page from the geocities Pentagon building, the military-related pages. You see this deliberately left space is in a stable form. It almost doesn't mean any more…It was really such a strong and stable foundation at this point in time, and not just, you know, under construction for fun.

You know Monkey Island famous adventure game from the 90s? It is still considered a classic. Here you see figures from the game, and somebody managed to make them into animated GIFs, and here's this monkey, and he is also a figure in the game, but he's without the context of Monkey Island, he's just a monkey, and he appears on loads and loads of web pages, without any reference to Monkey Island anymore. So just became a bad monkey, [More laughter from audience] which is one of the interesting things, because without context things don't work. I mean, they work, but differently.

OL: [Loud piano music.] We came to another famous collection. It's of animated gifs made by Chuck Poynter, the retired military guy…He started to make web pages, and elements for the web pages of other people, and especially animated gifs. So there are a lot of gifs, that are a lot still around on the web that have a comment: Made by Chuck Poynter here.

DE: The comments are inside these gif files, so they are not apparent but if you use a gif editor or just load it into a text edit or something [you can see it]. Sometimes the creators try to name them [the GIFs].

OL: Yeah, and this young girl is one of his best creations. But what does it mean “his creation”? It's something like the creation of the Monkey Island monkey before. It existed before somewhere. It was not made by the same person who made an optimated gif out of it. And in this case…with the help of the online community Chuck Poynter put his copyright on the girl. He didn't really make that record, she pounced from video graphics, from video works software, which is the creative director.

DE: Yeah, it's from 1985 it was created, yeah, so before the first Macintoshes…So, he made it eternal, this animation. And he made it in color.

OL: In color, and we think that when he was removing the shadow of the dog [initially in the graphic], he forgot one pixel, and this pixel…nobody ever removed it. Nobody would ever dare to remove it, or maybe nobody really noticed it.

DE: Or it was very, very tiny.

OL: And I should say, yeah, that this girl is my personal hero. Because of her I decided to become an animated gif model myself [laughter from audience].

DE: That is why you wear a red dress tonight.

OL: Yes, I always tried to look like her.

DE: Yeah, so we can show now, as a proof, this is Olia's 1999 work for Rhizome here.

OL: I started to make projects involving the dancing girl, for the first time in 1999. It was a splash page for Rhizome…it appeared before the content and was a project that artists made several covers, and she was appearing there. You see the dot of course is there as well.

DE: Only authentic with dot.

DE: It's not from Chuck Poynter. Also, interestingly, Olia at this point didn't know that it was from Chuck Poynter, because in this copy of the gif file, the comment was removed to save twenty bytes. Only later did we find a copy of the animation with his name there. It was recently then that we learned about who is Chuck Poynter and the other things he made.  [Editor's note: This observation suggests that file size influenced file manipulation during that time, to the extent that aesthetics were lower on the ladder of concerns than sharing. Interestingly, authorship is also deemed more expendable than sharing. Today, care for aesthetics and authorship often remains a secondary concern to sharing, though that may not always be the case for artists.]

OL: This is an interesting thing: the sound made took an effort to remove, and the comment but [they] didn't remove this pixel. [Laughter from audience.] Yeah. Just imagine there are a lot of elements, but animated gifs are another big part of the story of the early web and user culture. They are a big part of our works, of this century. When we started to work with amateur web, we only actually worked with animated gifs we found online. Before 2000, we were too arrogant. We were making everything ourselves…

OL: But there are fortunately animated gifs that not only survive, but they work really now the second life. It's great to see that there are artists working with animated gifs. Really, you know, like with the format you can come to the page of the young artist, and see the graphic design, music, performance, animated gifs? They really are a category of work.

DE: Yeah, but, this is a very recent thing, because we should talk about this gif that reaches a step in between, because this, computer graphics, as you can see, are mostly made by computer graphic generators and were very big on Myspace. They still have some elements of the classic gifs. They need a context to work. They are made to be recombined with other things, but they are static. You can compare this one here.

OL: There was a moment here, that actually we thought that animated gifs are dying out, because instead of being small and really animated, they started to be big and static.

DE: And glittering. [Laughter from audience.] This is, this is really…I don't know. [More laughter from audience.]

OL: This is how big a construction can be.


The Archive Team

DE: This photo, we made yesterday, by the way, here, in New York. Now we want to come to a turning point in our research, which is the deletion of the Geocities hosting service by Yahoo. It was open-minded, and closed or just shut down and deleted in 2009. It hosted loads and loads of amateur back pages. It was the place to go for web amateurs if they wanted to work on them.

OL: And to post the web pages for your businesses. As you can see here.

DE: Yeah. It was also used for businesses, and it also became a joke among web professionals. Geocities is part of the amateur web, but it's also its very own part of the amateur web because it had a special culture and a special visual style. It was deleted but it made us very sad as users, because it shows the maximum disrespect for this culture, just like, kind of: Let's make some fun of it. It's just trash, it's an internet ghetto, it's like how it was with Myspace, maybe, later. It's just a ghetto let's close it down. It was embarrassing. Let's forget it.”

What Felix Stands For

Luckily, there's an underground archivist group called Archive Team, and they understood that Geocities would be closed down, and they coordinated efforts among dozens of people to download as much as possible from this site, and to release all this data as a Bit Torrent download on Pirate Bay. And we are still downloading it, but…you can still look at everything else. There are only a few files missing, so only a few megabytes, which is maybe five hundred pages.

So, I am very grateful to these people, because they make this research possible. It’s very different if you have it on your hard disk at home, then if you, if it's hosted somewhere else. On one side, it’s sad that it was destroyed, on another you created the opportunity to check if our assumptions were true.

OL: It's really a lot of material…What we were doing before, we should say, they were only assumptions… anecdotal memories, And still our memories, because we could still remember how things were in the 90s, like the personal memories.

And it's interesting, you know? This is one of, chapters from my essay, written in 2004, from Vernacular Web, where I was describing very popular elements, like, top elements from the free collections that we used on the web pages of the people. Here you can see: pheonix, rainbow, and the “new” sign, like we did the top elements: beloved ones, and very important ones for the users, but I don't have examples here. I can't really prove my thesis. Now, for example, we have findings that are completely…

DE: Mind boggling…

OL: Yeah.

DE: So here is a webpage, also from Geocities, where everything is proved. [Soft laughter from audience.] So, you see here, but it's also interesting how, what meaning these elements have again. Again, it's proved that they are not used in a poetic way. So it's a very sad page, actually, of a man who describes how a mental illness, depression, affected his life, with touching music from Sting. I don't know if it's funny.

OL: Sting is funny.

DE: Yeah, Sting is funny. That's true. So here, you see, the feelings is used as an avatar, kind of: “That's me, and depression is a bitch, and I have to live with it,” and it's, I was born with it, so…But then here, it goes on and on, it's really very sad. Sorry. But then, blinking success, and the rainbow, and the news line.

OL: A new life.

DE: Yeah, it's a new life, and everything's great because the doctor put me on new medication, and it's like I'm my old self again. So you see, how powerful it is, these elements can be. It is very different if you could change your Facebook status from “Depressed” to “Sane,” or something. [Laughter from audience.]

OL: Yeah.

DE: And yeah, and actually, Geocities is full of such very touching moments.

DE: Felix is really a superstar. Some people remember that he was a cartoon figure once, but I think more people have seen him on the web, especially from cultures that don't know the cartoons, and we make a list of contexts in which he appears.

What Felix Stands For

So here he's accompanying an “under construction” sign. It's from a school yearbook and some pictures are missing, so he will wait for some time and the pictures will appear probably. So it shows understanding from the webmaster. I doesn't say: “Under construction. Pfft. Try again,” it says: “Ok. I understand. You're waiting. You're probably the guy whose photo is missing, and I'm taking care.”

Also, he was used often in the announcements of future events. In this case it's Christmas, or Halloween. It was a long time ago this Christmas, minus eighty or six months. [Laughter from audience.] And here Felix would walk and wait for Christmas, and he doesn't understand that it's already gone. [More laughter from audience.]

Here's also something you would never see today: “Send me some mail. I'm waiting.” People get too much mail but at this point the web page was very much a communicative device, so people would expect some feedback. “Write me back if you like my page, or even if you don't.”

On pages with jokes, and relaxing pictures of flowers or puppies, Felix is often seen because he looks very stressed out, and he could need a laugh, and read some jokes, and listen to some nice midi files, just to ease life.

Here, this is from the site we've just seen in detail. Online quizzes. Also, teachers made web pages for their classes and the web is full of them. People just really made quizzes for for fun, you should really think about the answers, and Felix also looks like he's thinking. He walks up and down. You can always give an intellectual touch to your web page, and sometimes he's just a cat. Here he's a stand-in for a cat that the cat owner never had a chance to take a picture of, because he's an outdoor kitty. So Felix is a very indoor kitty.

Apart from these meaning combinations of these vernacular elements, there are of course also things which are very formal things we encounter, and which are striking, and which we also, so to say, assume to have had anecdotal evidence of…

OL: Or not enough evidence before. This is our workroom, I don't remember when. Let's say 2006, and the piece is called “Dimensions, ” when we started to make works about the web. So these are actually prints, which have to be put on the walls, and it's called “Dimensions.” One represents the new web, and one represents Web 2.0. The first one stays for old pages that start to appear like this, the border-background would appear two times on your screen, and it would mean that this is an old page, it was made a long time ago, and nobody would think that the resolution would be higher than 600 x 480 pixels. And it would never happen now with the new pages, because they're all about zooming in, zooming out.

And now we go through the Geocities pages. We, first of all, find out that especially there, this “border culture,” the making of the border backgrounds was a big thing. Their concentration is much higher than in amateur, but not Geocities web. And of course, these backgrounds, they repeat the borders. Now, we have quite a low resolution here, [Music.] So we have to make it bigger, but it's very obvious on the modern screens.

DE: If you have a 24-inch screen, this will repeat five times. [Laughter from audience.] This is my favorite.

OL: Yeah, I think this one maybe it's three times on my screen. Before the archive, it was hard to find a page like this online, and now we really have a lot of materials, and thinking [to do about] what to do with this. [Chuckles to herself.] There is something else about the way pages are constructed. These are sets that we made. This one is professional…for business web sites. But the main thing is that such sets existed. That they came into their existence, and a lot of them are now detected in Geocities, and it actually made me rethink the web design timeline I started to make, also in the beginning of 2000s. I had a producter-style, so something that was before Internet came out of the universities, then there was amateur style, and then there were early professionals, so those people who started to make layouts in Photoshop.

And now that I understand that in between this amateur and early professionals, there must be set makers, so, those people who were making sets for the web pages. They are, can we say, that although they are all of the same, one can say that there are a lot of details, and they had an understanding of how a web page should function. There would always be the welcome sign, that's the element. There would be all these arrows: back, forward, that would substitute the navigation of the browsers. This is something very important, what users misunderstood about the…

DE: They thought that there's a new browser every two months, like a new major function, os maybe a new version would not have “backwards” and “forwards” anymore. [Laughter from audience.]

OL: So they took the responsibility.

DE: And it's also important to see that these sets not templates, are not fixed page layouts. You get a back full of nice elements. There are a lot of different styles, and you can then arrange them as you wish. Some of these set makers, they went really far, like including poetry here, that fits through this, through the mood of the set. But in the end, you get here: guestbook, sign, home, email, site map, links, everything you need for a web site in the minds of these guys, which were mostly women, by the way.

OL: Yeah, but what you show now, it's another great thing on Geocities: these table backgrounds, or table layouts, this is the table inside the table inside the table. You begin again, with the borders of the table, so some of the cells, some of the tables, they were there only to be the border of another table and this only to create more rich visuals, to make them appear…All this is before CSS, before Javascript, before Flash of course, so this is how you could make the web yourself.

DE: All these styles are hardly seen today, anymore. Though, it's also a very, such an interesting view of, especially in screen typography, where today it's very cool to have your Helvetica, and it's black on white, like on paper, and nobody works with the depth, and all the things you can do on the color screen. Many people treat the web like it's a laser printer from the 80s.

Also another experience you have as an archaeologist on Geocities is time: so how you understand that the web page is old when it shows you the current date. This is a Javascript trick, it's pretty much what you could do with Javascript at this point in time.

OL: It's a special experience. You think you came to that page, but suddenly it shows the date.

DE: It's like a zombie that came for the grave. [Laughter from audience.] There was such a…among British gentlemen, during the colonization of Africa, they had such society events: unwrapping the mummy from Egypt. They had a mummy from Egypt, and they would unwrap it, with friends, and this is very much like it, I think. I was not present, during mummy unwrapping.

And here, this is especially touching because it's from the year 19,000 [Laughter from audience.], which is a bug in the script, how the date was calculated. This really adds to the ruinous atmosphere of such a finding. Nothing works anymore, and here, even something as simple as showing the date doesn't work anymore, but you still understand the life it had and the ideas that were behind it, so the idea is that all this has to be now.

OL: It will be forever.

DE: Yeah, it's forever, and it's also a different idea, before the web became a communication device, as something that, it's good that, you type something and you're happy if it's forgotten, because probably you were drunk, with your mobile phone somewhere.

OL: So, we can stay inside the Geocities archive. It's a great thing, and a lot of work, but then, you know if you manage, or if you happen to find the link from that page to something that still exists, then the would be real trip starting. Because you came to the page that would never be shown to you by Google, so these are the “deep Web,” as we call it, so the pages that are still there, still made in the amateur style, and they are amateur pages, and they're extremely special, and made with a lot of patience, and through this, it's a very great thing that through the archive, we can now get access to them, to the pages that are still here.

DE: We show something abstract, because we thought you like abstract, conceptual…[Laughter from audience.]

OL: Because we get to tell something important. It wasn't one of the first findings, but it's still it's the most obscure one for us, because it was really the first or second page …and we realized that it uses graphics that are coming from Geocities. So, how could it be if Geocities is shut down?

DE: Yeah, actually Geocities looks like this right now.

OL: Yeah, so, not there, but, in fact, there were a lot of things, a lot of stuff is still online. These are not pages of the people, but these are Geocities' and Yahoo's own creations. For example, all the templates that they were offering for the users to implement, they still can be found there. These templates represent this attitude to the users — they look really ugly. [Laughter from audience.] You can find them there.

DE: This is a graphic here that is, first we found, it's actually a zipper, because it's a transparent graphic, and it was made to create space in a layout. So if you want, some people use this and put ten next to each other to create a certain kind of space they wanted, or some re-size this element, but it was, it was interesting that exactly this thing here, you can enlarge, that exactly this thing is still there. It's just…So yeah, who actually thinks this is more important to save than the whole of Geocities?

OL: But it's also great to find, that it is there. I remember, everybody who made pages in the 90s had cgif, maybe it was called clear gif, some people would call it zero-dot-gif, but it was this transparent one that would help you to make layouts, and now we can say that this, we found, we can maybe try to build now something out of this invisible gif, just implement it in our work, whatever it is, and make it in our own pages, this to prolong the life of Geocities. [I'm pretty unclear on why finding a cgif that still remains on the website is such an important find. cgifs are infinitely replicable and all over the net. Given that this is the case, I can only assume that the combination of this gif hosted at a particular url is what's so important, and that's an argument I'm hard pressed to buy].

OL: So of all the findings, we are documenting them and discussing them real time in 1 kilobyte of kilobyte age block. We are going to inform people about the new findings of invisible gifs and visible gifs we find. Thank you.



  • Manufactured Homes

    That was a different thought track. I admire your finesse that you put into your writing . Please do continue with more similar to this.

  • Jimmmmm

     sounds like old people…

    • sally

      Sounds like old people! Har. As an old person, I say this sounds like art historians.
      The writing of art history has always been an imperfect, highly
      subjective process. You’ve got artifacts, like that orphaned pixel in
      the dancing girl gif (or the Belvedere Torso), and people floating
      competing theories about their significance, or lack of significance.
      How did it get there? Why does it remain? Enough people valued it to
      keep it around, what were their reasons? Good, solid historical
      questions – the cgif question is another one – it’s not just about the
      artifacts themselves but the systems of preservation – the age-old paradoxical mash-up of social history with aesthetic appreciation. I think this is a good
      project. If I was a rigorous art historian, I’d be bugged by the
      loosey-goosey methodology. But, hey, it’s the 21st century and
      methodology is a big question mark these days. 

  • Anonymous

     Let’s try to up the level of conversation around here just a little. 

  • Anonymous

     Let’s try to up the level of conversation around here just a little. 

  • Jonathan

    This made me feel a little old. I remember using the Felix gif in my web pages back in the late 90′s. Seems like forever ago.  My old pentium 3 lol.

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